Tips on building trust using retrospectives

Trust is the most foundational pillar of a high performing team. Your team members need to trust each other that they can be candid about their work, behaviours and outcomes. To build trust in the team, everyone needs to know that you all have the same intentions.

Building trust takes a lot of time. It often happens naturally and organically over time. But sometimes, especially in times of rapid unexpected change or problems, you want to accelerate the trust building and unlock the potential of your team. How can you do it incrementally?

3 tips to build trust using retrospectives

Retrospectives are a great tool to reflect on the past week and improve as a team. There are thousands of ways to run retrospectives. However, in all cases, vulnerability and trust are critical. Without that, it’s going to be very hard to make the team reflect and loudly acknowledge what went wrong. It comes for free to talk about forces outside of the team, but takes courage and trust to say it or accept that your work was below the bar this week. Here are three ways to iteratively improve the trust within the team using retrospectives.

1. Start from “Thank you” exercise

In this exercise, everyone writes as many post-its as they want but each must thank someone else for something in that week.

This is a perfect opening for a retrospective. It strengthens the relationships between team members, starts on a positive note, makes everyone proud of their work and makes them smile. Last, but not least, it gives you, as a manager, an insight in dynamics in the team - who helps who, how often and with what impact.

If you want some examples:

2. Ask everyone to say loud their one mistake from the week

In this exercise, give everyone two minutes to write down the mistake that they did last week and then everyone will say them aloud. This exercise is not about blaming each other. It’s about self-reflection, vulnerability and courage. Make sure that you explain to your team that we shouldn’t attack anyone for their mistakes but should be thankful for sharing them. After each person, thank them for courage and acknowledge that you are grateful for being self-reflective. Sometimes these mistakes will start a laugh in the team which usually is fostering the trust even more. But make sure that no one is giving comments like “Yea, told you.” or “Agree, that was shit”.

As a manager, you should start from yourself to show example and set the tone on how hard you should be on yourself.

Over time, it also gets everyone used to noticing their mistakes over the week to remember about them on retrospective.

If you want some examples:

3. Make rest of your retrospective blameless

You can’t make everyone say their mistakes candidly if you don’t double down on making the rest of your retrospective blameless. Make sure that you stop after the second exercise, thank everyone for being honest and vulnerable and remind them that from now on you are going back into the blameless world of team-focused retrospective.

Summary

A retrospective is a tool that every agile team is running in some cadence. As a manager, it’s worth to invest a lot in retrospectives - as one of the core rituals of your team, it has an amazing compounding effect and it’s one of the biggest levers you have.

Vulnerability and trust are absolutely critical for the success of every team and organisation. Without these, there is almost no chance of winning - even if you are making progress, imagine what you can achieve with cohesive and much better performing team.

Try these two exercises on your next retrospectives and you will quickly see a better vibe between your team members. If you are interested in more ways to improve trust, read this blog post about why assuming good intent is important.